Every February we have a family sheep shearing day, usually attended by three generations of my family who show up to watch if not to help. Three flocks of sheep are involved: ours, our son’s, and our brother-in-law’s.
Sheep were once as common as houseflies around here, going back to the middle 1800s. But the flocks of my great grandfather Charles Rall, and his brother, Joseph, and the flocks of my grandfather Henry Rall and his brothers and cousins, and the flocks of my father and mother and her brothers and sisters, and the flocks of their children, had dwindled to only a few by 1970. Tractors, corn, and soybeans chased the sheep away, and seemingly most of the Rall family too.
Not the keenest agricultural economist nor the most optimistic supporter of environmentally-sane family farming could have predicted that a revival might occur.
First of all, the wise men of agribusiness did not predict that pasture farming— raising animals on pasture with little or no grain, would become the trend that it is today. Pasture farming more than anything else allows for a return of small scale agriculture because it is a low-cost way to get started in farming. But to make it happen for us, it was just as important that many members of our family decided to stay put on home grounds or to return to them.
What happened seems like a miracle to me. As a boy, I often woke up to the plaintive cries of my cousin Adrian calling his sheep early in the morning on the farm next to ours. I thought those days were long gone. But now these same pastures echo a new generation of sheep callers. How astounding.
In an age where population shift and constant mobility are supposed to be the norm, here we stand, grazing sheep on the very same land that our ancestors grazed sheep nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. I have just published a novel I called The Last of the Husbandmen, but as we were shearing our sheep this year, I was thinking that I should write another called The First of the New Husbandmen.
If I would ever do that, Brad, my brother-in-law and his wife, Ann, my sister, would be good models for the hero and heroine. Brad is not farm-born or raised. His day job is in telecommunications maintenance. But, as he puts it, something in him just took to farming after Ann introduced him to husbandry. They also raise beef and pork for themselves and to sell to neighbors. They keep hens for eggs. Their vegetable gardens are awesomely neat and productive. They have an orchard for fruit and a woodlot provides logs for the fireplace and emergency heat. They grow alfalfa for their own hay and some to sell. They even have a draft horse now which Brad trained himself.
There is only a little need for power equipment on his farm because no annually cultivated crops are grown except in the garden. A neighbor cuts and bales the hay on shares. They have expanded their operation, buying some of Adrian’s old pasture lands while continuing to rent some pasture from another brother-in-law and sister who kept a flock in their younger years before Brad took over. Brad and Ann, like all true husbandmen, would rather be at home than anywhere else. Their pastures are as smooth and comely as a golf course. To realize that this land has been in grasses and clovers, that is, never plowed, for well over a hundred years, is just awesome in corn belt country.
Getting our sheep sheared in this supposedly Post-Sheep era was a somewhat daunting challenge in the beginning. Shearers are few and far between today. It hardly pays to travel, sometimes from relatively far away, to shear just a few sheep on a small farm.
The first years, Carol and I, and then our son Jerry and I, sheared our first four sheep by hand. I used a hand sheep shears; Carol used her sewing scissors. There’s nothing like that experience to convince a person to hire a professional shearer. I was fortunate to have two neighbors who still sheared commercially and because they lived close by, and because they were very nice, they did shear our tiny flock, charging a little more per sheep than they normally would on a larger flock. When they passed away, I was worried.
But a strange thing happened— this whole story is strange. A visitor from Michigan, Dave Owens, stopped by one day with some books of mine he wanted me to sign. After we talked awhile, it came out that he was a professional sheep shearer, a good one as we would learn. By then my son had sheep, and my brother-in-law and sister had sheep. Yes, we were looking for a shearer. Yes, he would come from his farm in Michigan and shear, since we now had a good day’s work for him. Because it meant setting up at three different farms, we were willing to pay more than the usual fee.
Dave has been shearing for us now for quite a few years. Getting to my son’s barn requires fording a creek and climbing a hill that is either snow-covered or muddy in February. Not many shearers would put up with that. Getting to know Dave, I think he shears sheep for the same reason we raise them. Not for money, really, but for love of farming. He has his own flock too.
By dawn’s early light, he arrives with his brother Phil who comes along as a sort of assistant. After shearing our sheep, we move to Jerry’s place. Jerry’s day job is building and remodeling houses but he also has an innate skill at handling animals. By about mid-afternoon, we are headed to Brad’s nearby farm, which is the home farm where I and my eight siblings grew up.
There are do’s and don’ts of shearing. The sheep must be kept indoors beforehand if snow or rain is falling. It is very difficult to try to shear a snow-covered fleece or a very wet one. The sheep need to be bunched together close to the shearer’s platform so that the animals can be more easily caught and tipped on their butts handy to the shearer. Having the sheep bunched together keeps them calmer too.
We like to have children handy on shearing day. The wool, fleece by fleece, goes into a large wool sack, and a small, agile child is the perfect kind of manpower to pack the wool down.
Brad had emailed all the neighborhood kinfolks and invited them to the shearing this year. Quite a few showed up, letting their children take turns bouncing in the wool sack. For me and my siblings there was a special feeling of both joy and sorrow in the air. Next to the shearing barn stands the old milking parlor and milk house where once we worked our hearts out, fancying that we would have a successful dairy, and in fact nearly breaking my heart when the venture did not succeed as well as expected. But even more poignant, at the very epicenter of the barn where now so many family members clustered and talked and joked and bounced in the wool sack, our mother many years ago fell from the hay loft, broke her neck, and died.
Surveying the scene as the family elder now, I felt an exhilarating sense of having risen above both the lost joys of the past and the bitter ashes of failure. And my grandson, Evan, showed that he was old enough to handle the sheep even as I am getting too old to do it. If I can continue to con him into helping out on sheep shearing day, I can keep on raising sheep for, well, who knows for how many more years.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)
and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Images Credit: Jennifer Cartellone